Difference Between Terrorism and War on Terror

by Jason Shaw


To understand the various dimensions of terrorism, it is very important to clearly define the term terrorism. In this context, The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”  Similarly, The FBI uses this definition: “Terrorism is the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objective (Weinberg 2013). There are also other common terrorist concepts utilised by academics and academic organisations, but there is also little agreement about the precise term. Therefore, it can be inferred that describing it in one particular description is not a simple feat. Indeed, by looking at the essence of the dispute and the position of the media, the true concept of terrorism can be given. Since both of these are defining variables for classifying an event as a terrorist attack or the war of liberty, it is necessary to research multiple meanings and thus figure out common trends. Therefore, considering the diversity of meanings, there are certain variables similar to all of them (Duncan 2013). Those aspects are:

a) Violence: refers to the use of brutality or cruelty to achieve the goals.

b) Perpetrator: Establishes the person responsible for the terrorist assault. Even the state itself uses brutality against its own public, which is recognised as state terrorism. It may be anybody.

c) Motive: That is to say, the intent of the terrorist assault. Behind all terrorist action that could be political or social, there is still a purpose. The act is not a criminal activity in the absence of any other intent, it is merely a felony.

d) Victims: A very contentious topic is who is a target of terrorist violence. Victims are usually ordinary civilians, according to certain concepts of terrorism. In order to pressurise the government of that specific region, violent acts are carried out against the masses.

e) Audience: Refers to the community of persons intended to be targeted by a terrorist assault. In order to increase the strategic impact In order to increase the strategic impact In doing so, plaintiffs can implicitly compel politicians to satisfy their demands.

Origin of Terrorism

During the French revolution in the 1790s, the word terrorism was first invented by rebels employing brutality against the regime (Lacqueur 1977). Over the years, though, certain extremist organisations have been found to cause aggression in multiple ways all over the globe. Historically, the notion of terrorism has been treated as religious extremism, i.e. religious extremism could be used with terrorism interchangeably. One of the aspects Religious Fundamentalism is the term which was first used for the Protestant Community dominant in the United State in the 20th century. As the name suggests, the values and belief system of the people belonging to this community are fundamental and resistant to the modern idea as far as religion is concerned. Religious Fundamentalism studied today by social scientist is more of a contextual worldview which reflects modernity and change, thus studying religious beliefs being stagnant and adamant to the globalization and changing values (Ahmed 2013) Though social scientists tend to study this worldview without any bias i.e. by ignoring the violence involved, however the modern day Islamic Modernism involves such aspects owing much to the global terrorism.

Terrorism Now and Earlier

In this context it must be understood that the meanings of the term “Terrorism” varies before and after the debacle of 9/11.  The term terrorism has been renamed as “New Terrorism” in the aftermath of 9/11. The concept of threat had significantly changed by the end of Cold War which in turn changes the concept of international security (Outman, May & Sawinski 2003). So it is pertinent to the study to be well aware of the changing nature of traditional and new terrorism. The world’s sole super power, when hit by the September 11 attacks adopted new strategic implications to counter the New Terrorism. Before Cold War, the term international security mainly focused on the use of force between states. In this context of security, states are the main cause of threat to security and in the meantime also what is threatened. This definition of international security has been changed with the advent of new phenomenon that is so called “New Terrorism”.

The September 11 attacks have not only changed the definitions of security but also brought forward the real cause of threat to world peace that is new terrorism. Now terrorists are like common civilian peoples and they typically attack singly using weapons of mass destruction without forming a conventional group of peoples like group of soldiers or an army.  So it is very difficult to find out their attacks in advance.  Hence the opposition is not ready for counterattack or is not in a state to defend its state. In addition to this, the concept of contemporary terrorism is also a major challenge to the world’s global security.

            Contemporary terrorism mean the act of using chemical, nuclear or biological weapons not the traditional ones which have more adverse effect on the mankind than the physical weapons (Aaronson 2013). This contemporary terrorism not only poses security threat to the state of goal but also its neighboring states.  Furthermore, due to the advent of new terrorism the changing nature of war and conflict has also being noticed. Main change was visible after the Cold War and this transformation introduced a new threat that is known as “asymmetrical threat” (Jhonson 2005). This threat implies that attackers are superior to the target even if the attackers have many weaknesses in them.  So the attacks after the Cold War like 9/ 11 are very different from previous ones in many aspects.


This term refers to the area a war or conflict intends to attack. Old and new terrorism has a major difference in their territoriality. Old or traditional terrorism was generally home based mean their target was just a single state, its home nation, its population, property, institutions and policies. In contrast, for new terrorism overthrow of government is not an immediate goal and also they do not operate in particular areas.


Motivation means aim or goal, which also greatly differ between traditional and new terrorism. The new terrorists have no clear political goal but their main focus was to ruin societies and much of mankind. Their goals are sensible whereas the goals of old terrorists were definite. They mainly do a terrorist attack for demanding any political agreement. Their main motivation behind the attack was left wing ideologies such as nationalism and separatism.


The new terrorism is also very different from old traditional terrorism organizationally. Their structures are quite different from each other. New terrorist groups are more dispersed and decentralized. So their structure is most difficult to grab. They are often termed as networks that are widely spread rather than simple an organization. In contrary, old traditional terrorism is more centralized like a single organization working in a central area under the supervision of a single leader.


Traditional terrorism spread violence to target those persons who are symbols of what it is opposed to such as head of the states, diplomats, bankers etc. On the contrary, new terrorism mainly focuses on depersonalization of its targets.

Difference Between Terrorism and War

A few social scientists tends to use war and terrorism interchangeably, or others sarcastically claim that a war is the rich man`s terrorism. However, there is a distinct difference between the two. War generally constitutes an armed conflict between states, or amongst a state, over either territory or resources. In other words war is a kind of a direct conflict between the parties having a conflict of interests. On the other hand, terrorism is the infliction of violence by a party over conflict of interests with the state or other influential interest groups where there is no direct means of exchanging hostility (White 2009). That is, terrorism involves the indirect infliction of violence over the parties not involved in the conflict, more like guerilla warfare, where collateral damage is done on civilians, which puts pressure on the state to comply by the demands of the terrorists.

Forms of Terrorism

There are many different forms of terrorisms, and the definitions and forms are evolving by the day. The earliest form of terrorism is the state sponsored terrorism, where the state itself is responsible for infliction of violence for a variety of reasons. Secondly, Guerilla warfare is another form of terrorism where the terrorists utilize the technique of hit and run to counter the stronger and well equipped enemies. Similarly, civil disorder is another kind of terrorism where the civil society inflicts violence of state property also on other civilians as a protest to a policy or the government as a whole. Another recent phenomenon is the Cyber Terrorism which implies the use of cyber space or the internet to inflict violence on another party, for instance hacking important state website to exhibit their stance. Thus, there are many different forms of terrorism, with recent developments in the forms with every passing day.


Thus, terrorism is quite a multi-dimensional phenomenon in general with the very wide scope and a series of definitions. Also, many researchers are now treating the concept of terrorism as merely a subjective term, since every individual has a merely distinct understanding of what it means and how it works. Furthermore, the role of media and popular culture in defining the phenomenon also plays an important and yet, in my view a negative role. The media representatives insensitively label an act as terrorism without even confirming the nature and scope of violence which makes the entire society prone to the flaw of labeling every kind of offensive and violent behavior as an act of violence. Thus, efforts must be made particularly to educate the mass society and specifically the opinion-makers to understand the complexity of the concept and differentiate between terrorism and other similar concepts. Moreover, given the global dimension of terrorism and it`s ever-increasing effects on the civil society, mass movement must be initiated to make the common man aware of its consequences at all levels to help reduce its impact to maximum level possible. Thus, more research and resources need to be put into the understanding of its scope and definition.

  • AARONSON, T. (2013). The terror factory: inside the FBI’s manufactured war on terrorism.
  • AHMED, A. S. (2013). The thistle and the drone: how America’s War on Terror became a global war on tribal Islam.
  • DUNCAN, G. (2013). State terrorism and human rights: international responses since the end of the Cold War. Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge.
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